Modern History of the Ulithi Atoll, Part III

This is the third in a series of blog entries chronicling the modern history of the Ulithi Atoll. For background information see Part I, which covers 1529 to 1730, and Part II, which covers from 1731 to 1899.

At the conclusion of the Spanish America War the United States sought to strip Spain of any of lingering colonies or possessions that might interfere with America’s manifest destiny to reign as the primary power in the Western Hemisphere. This extended to Philippines, which provided so lucrative to its former owners, but not to the smaller and more scattered Islands of Micronesia. America also seemed eager for Spain to have available the liquid cash assets necessary for war reparations. With the consent of the United States, Germany purchased both the Carolines and the Marianas from Spain in 1899. Guam was the sole exception, being retained by the U.S., and it seems to have served the same purpose of naval and economic port of security and transit that the Spanish employed it as.

A German cruiser in Microneisa, circa 1876 Copyright Kingdom of Yap.org

The Germans, like the Spanish before them, were much more interested in Yap Proper, than the smaller islands around it. While busy redistricting and attempting to commercialize Yap, they sent only a few vessels to the outer islands in order to buy Copra (dried coconut meat). This gave the Ulithians and other outer islanders a small amount of money for the purchase of basic goods. The Germans did decree some laws, such as a restriction of the tapping of coconut sap, but these were mostly ignored. The primary impact of the Germans seems to be their decree that extended canoe voyages between islands cease. This was enforced much more thoroughly than their other legislative efforts. Both the laws restricting intoxication and travel seemed to been intended to make the locals more orderly, or at least easier to rule. Following the Great War, Japan assumed control of the islands, as it had joined the cause of the Allies late in the war with the hope of gaining additional lands to increase its regional power.

At the conclusion of the First World War the Allied Supreme Council created a mandate system that stripped the defeated nations of their colonies, and placed them as “temporary wards of the ‘advanced’ nations until they were able, in the words of what became Article 22 of the Covenant, ‘to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world .’” The un-advanced, were passed from the advanced losers to the advanced winners. The Mandate was termed a class “C” which designated those nations on the “’lowest’ stage of development; for them independence was not seen as an optional at all .”

A Japanese observation tower on Asor, photo copyright PacificWorlds.com taken by Drury C. Lee

The Japanese set up a very small presence on Ulithi during their League of Nations Mandate and later Military occupation of Yap (and Micronesia). The location of this small group of rotating men, never more than a dozen at a time, on Asor served to up-heave the traditional power system on Mogmog in small ways. Although active prostylization did not occur on Ulithi itself the Japanese were pleased to tolerate Catholicism on Ulithi, as it seemed to promote order and subservience in the locals throughout the mandate . The Japanese relocated some Ulithians, mostly young males, in order to attend school in Yap Proper. A handful were later sent to trade schools as far way as Palau or the Marianas. Those who were in Yap at the onset of the War were to remain there until the conclusion of Pacific Theatre hostilities, and were often employed in military construction projects such as runway repair. In the years immediately leading up to the War, there was also relocation of some Ulithian men to work at the phosphate mines on Fais. Others went to Angur in Palau to work as unskilled manual labor in pursuance of the goals of the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. Not as much interested with (or concerned by) the fact that Japan was able to create conditions for net exportation of goods such as rice and sugar in the region as a whole most contemporary Ulithians note only that it was a period characterized by strict order and development.

As well as locals, some American observers have painted a very glossy version of events during the period. A reporter for the Saturday Evening Post noted in early 1964 that “by the mid-1930s energetic Japanese had colonized extensively, building sugar mills and pearl centers, mines, fisheries, and a thriving copra trade. The major islands, bustling centers for commerce became progressive modern in their way of life.” Indeed there were a few sites hosting great leaps in development, but on the whole this is a rather simplified take on a mercantilist / colonial system, that was for a time directly controlled through a military apparatus, and included a limited use of coerced labor as the War came to an end and the Japanese were under greater attack .

We might do well to question the degree of direct impact the Japanese had on Ulithi itself. In his Pacific Islands Douglas L. Oliver illustrates a juxtaposition of the larger islands (contemporary state capitals) where “native life was transformed, sometimes beyond recognition” and those “out-islands” including Ulithi Atoll where the foreign influence was less direct and significant . He argues that with “no immediate Japanese need for their lands or persons they were left for the next batch of foreign masters to transform.” These next “masters” were the Americans who brought with them many shifts in life and thought.

Part IV will cover from 1944 through to the 1960s.

The Habele Outer Island Education Fund is a US-based non profit organization dedicated to promoting educational opportunities and accomplishments in Micronesia's remote Outer Islands.